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Transparent Policing: Law Targets Anti-Trans Harassment 

Wednesday, Jun 24 2015
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Last week, Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced an ordinance that would require the San Francisco Police Department and the Sheriff's Department to gather and report demographic data about every detention or traffic stop. The measure was initially described by Cohen (and reported by the press) as targeting racial profiling, but Cohen also included a mandate that officers record each person's sex and ask them to disclose their gender identity.

"People are less aware of profiling that occurs against the trans community," Cohen says. "But trans people experience three times as much police violence. For trans people of color, it's even worse."

Cohen's action comes at an opportune time — just as police were preparing for Pride. She had been moved to introduce the ordinance following an event that happened four months earlier, when several dozen transgender women of color lay on the ground outside City Hall, feigning death. It was a few days after Taja DeJesus, a trans Latina woman, was stabbed to death in the Bayview, and the trans community had gathered to protest and mourn.

"Remember my face," one African-American trans woman told the crowd, "because the statistics will tell you that in the next decade, I will have died violently."

Many of the trans activists spoke at the Board of Supervisors meeting that afternoon, pleading with the city's leaders to focus on preventing violence against trans people. Some suggested police should start tracking gender identity in their reports. The SF LGBT Center had just released a study on violence against the city's LGBT community that pointed out that law enforcement and government agencies don't collect information on people's sexual orientation or gender identity, leading to a dearth of data.

Public comment at Board of Supervisors meetings — when a bevy of City Hall gadflies come out to sing songs and rail against fascism — often seems like a chance for supervisors to check their email or take a bathroom break. But for Cohen, the trans activists that day made an impression.

"They spoke about fear of the police, and fear of not being accepted," Cohen recalls. "Certainly being African American, that fear of law enforcement is something I can relate to."

Cohen hopes the data will provide a "benchmark" and "quell the disproportionate targeting of people of color and transgender people" by police. "When we are not counting something," she says, "we are not paying attention." With quarterly reports breaking down the data on stops and detention, attention will have to be paid to the treatment of trans people by police.

Flor Bermudez of Oakland's Transgender Law Center says Cohen's measure needs adjustments. "Although there are good intentions here," she says, "we are concerned that there needs to be further work to figure out how to do it right."

Without "broad cultural competency training" for law enforcement officers, Bermudez says, such a program could do harm. Officers need to be trained in the distinction between gender identity and the sex a person is assigned at birth, and prevented from conducting unnecessary, invasive searches. "People have been searched for the sole purpose of looking at genitals," she says.

Bermudez also wants to see direct mandates against differential treatment of trans people by law enforcement and requirements for police officers to use people's preferred gender pronouns.

Cohen and her staff seem open to amending the ordinance based on feedback from the transgender community, which she credits with prompting her to take action. "They educated me," she says. If that openness to education continues, San Francisco could be on its way to having a groundbreaking new policy aimed at protecting trans people from police harassment.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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